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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Bride of Northanger by Diana Birchall | Blog Tour

Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me for review purposes; all opinions are honest and my own. Affiliate links used in this post.

The Bride of Northanger by Diana Birchall
Publisher: White Soup Press (September 19, 2019)
Length: 230 pages
Trade paperback ISBN: 978-0981654300
A happier heroine than Catherine Morland does not exist in England, for she is about to marry her beloved, the handsome, witty Henry Tilney. The night before the wedding, Henry reluctantly tells Catherine and her horrified parents a secret he has dreaded to share - that there is a terrible curse on his family and their home, Northanger Abbey. Henry is a clergyman, educated and rational, and after her year’s engagement Catherine is no longer the silly young girl who delighted in reading “horrid novels”; she has improved in both reading and rationality. This sensible young couple cannot believe curses are real...until a murder at the Abbey triggers events as horrid and Gothic as Jane Austen ever parodied - events that shake the young Tilneys’ certainties, but never their love for each other ...



It is a truth universally disregarded, unfortunately, that Northanger Abbey is a criminally underrated book. It was truly a shock to me to discover, upon finding the Janeite community, that many (if not most) readers rank NA so low as to not rank it at all. They dismiss it entirely as silly fluff. But ever the contrarian, Northanger Abbey was my favorite of Austen's novels for some years, and still ranks in my top 3. I won't launch into a full defense of it here, but suffice it to say, I've been very disappointed with the lack of retellings and continuations Northanger gets in the JAFF community.

I'm also always a little trepidatious of the few retellings that do make it to market, because they have a lot to live up to, both to my Northanger-loving heart, and in convincing all of the many P & P-exclusive readers to branch out and give little Catherine and Henry a chance.

Added to the fact that do many readers just don't show the enthusiasm for Northanger as they do for Pride & Prejudice, Northanger is just a very different book than the rest of Austen work. In it, more of her satirical, playful side comes to the fore than in any of her works other than her juvenalia. The tone and style are so different that an additional layer of challenge is added for authors who want to mimic Austen's style; yet another is added in the need to be familiar and comfortable with the gothic literature it both embraces and satirizes. For a "light, frothy, silly" book, it's not the easiest story to take on.

I was very curious to see what direction Diana Birchall would take, and how much she'd lean into the Gothic Romance of it all. . . And boy, did she ever lean in.

This book is bananas. Truly, it is bonkers. Northanger Abbey itself is a bit on the bonkers-side, and I read The Bride of Northanger in one marathon sitting, so calling it bananas-bonkers (bonkernanas?) is not the insult you may think it is. It's just that, at literally no point* in this book did I know what crazy thing was going to happen next. In this — and in the body count — it is very, very much a gothic romance. The Bride of Northanger is the type of book Catherine Morland would give herself giddy shivers with at night. It's dramatic, shocking, abrupt, and oddly, utterly enthralling. It takes Catherine's many imagined horrors and uses the actual bad behaviors Austen laid out in her text, and uses them to vindicate Catherine's "flights of fancy," turning the conceit of Northanger Abbey on its head. Catherine — now married and doing her best to be rational and mature — does her best to keep her head while all of her wildest imaginings are realized, and then some. All the worst of man and monastery are thrown her way in quick succession, and the level-headed way she handles things feels surprisingly realistic; Catherine's growth feels realistic, making her a dynamic and engaging character, whose roots still feel firmly planted in Austen.

Other characters, however, feel less realistic offshoots of Austen. Where Catherine has become rational, the rest have gone much in the opposite direction, becoming more extreme, over the top, dramatic, reactionary... In an odd way, it works, subverting the reader's expectations and bolstering Catherine and her capabilities. There is occasional effort made to capture Henry Tilney's sarcasm and wit (one of the highlights of NA for me), but I could have done with a great deal more of Tilney's humor, as well as a bit more complexity of feeling for him. He suffers loss, scandal, and terror in this continuation, but his reactions remain somewhat callous and unrealistic.

It's an interesting book to try to discuss, because while I think there are some major flaws in it, none of them really made me like it less. Though she may not have always captured Henry's voice, Birchall (mostly) nailed Austen's mechanics, and very often, her tone. It's funny on a few levels, it's surprising almost continuously, and so fully embracing the gothicness of it all feels like a fulfillment of Catherine's character, in such an unexpected way. I don't know that it'll be the book to convince JAFF readers to embrace more Northanger Abbey retellings, necessarily, but it certainly was a fun one, and unlike any other Austen retelling I've read.


*except for one crucial one, which I saw coming a mile away, and which left a really bad taste in my mouth.

3 comments:

  1. LOL, yes, it got bananas in this one. I loved it for being a strong and worthy sequel, but it was a fun gothic, too.

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  2. My favorite line: “so fully embracing the gothicness of it all feels like a fulfillment of Catherine's character, in such an unexpected way.”

    I agree — it did read much in the same “poke at gothic romance” that Austen styled in the original.

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  3. Happy to hear that you are a NA fan Misty. I am too. Bride of Northanger is so different than other Austenesque novels I have read because it is Gothic fiction-inspired and is also a parody of the genre, similar to what Austen did. If it has major flaws I think the author was mirroring the genre, which in comparison to today's writing style, it is flawed. It's campy and over the top. I am glad that you enjoyed. Like you, I can never have too much Henry Tilney! I enjoyed how Birchall gave Catherine her wish fulfillment by placing her in her own Gothic adventure.

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